January 16, 2013
Zionists are "bloodsuckers" and "the descendants of apes and pigs." Egyptians should "nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews." Those are the words not of an anonymous fanatic on a Cairo street corner but of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, uttered in 2010 but immortalized on videotape.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney rightly condemned the comments as "deeply offensive" and warned that Morsi, the U.S.-educated engineer who was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood before his election last year, must respect members of all faiths. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland went further, saying that "we think that these comments should be repudiated and they should be repudiated firmly."
Morsi should certainly apologize for his hateful words, although an apology would not provide persuasive evidence that he has changed his opinions. What's more, the depressing reality is that apologizing wouldn't bring him back into the mainstream but might in fact alienate the mainstream. Slurs and stereotypes about Jews aren't confined to a political fringe in Egypt and other Arab societies. They are also found in newspaper columns, in political cartoons, in children's textbooks and in the discourse of many educated elites. Bizarrely, given the fact that Jews and Arabs are both Semites, the tropes of European anti-Semitism have been recycled in denunciations of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territories.
Abhorrent in itself, such bigotry also makes it easier for defenders of wrongheaded Israeli policies such as the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank to equate opposition to those policies with anti-Semitism. Defaming Jews does nothing to further the Palestinian cause.
It's true that in diplomacy actions can speak louder than words, and since assuming the presidency, Morsi has maintained the "cold peace" between Egypt and Israel inaugurated by a 1979 treaty brokered by the United States. He also served as an interlocutor in the talks that produced a cease-fire in November after eights days of conflict between Israel and Hamas. Whatever his feelings about Israel or Zionism, Morsi seems to understand that abrogating the treaty would not be in Egypt's interest. (It would mean the end, for example, of billions of dollars of military aid from the United States.)
Still, even if Morsi is more circumspect as president than he was as a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, his words captured on videotape are a reminder that old and ugly animosities are alive in the new Egypt.